Thursday, October 30, 2003

E-learning as a mere medium?

E-learning is not simply a medium, though the "e" part of the label does describe Web technologies, which may constitute a medium. What you DO with that medium – e-learning – is however a collection of processes, not a medium. E-learning in its simplest and most generic sense is a technology-facilitated learning process, just as classroom-learning is a classroom-facilitated learning process, and book-learning is a book-facilitated learning process.

Each new medium presents trainers (and learners) with the possibility of creating or refining different processes that, ideally, get closer to the most effective or efficient way of achieving a given learning objective. If that were not the case we'd still be teaching people by drawing with a stick in the sand.

The Internet (the "e") presents opportunities to create and implement learning processes that are different from the processes we grew up with in everyday classroom environments.

The view that e-learning is just classes online may once have held sway, but is now really rather archaic. Those who can't see that are out of touch with how the Web is changing our learning processes and our lives.

E-learning evolution?

Maybe the way we learn best is the way we are taught to learn as children, and maybe that can be self-perpetuating. Though I bet you dollars to donuts that if we could map a wiring diagram of the brain, today's pre-teens would have very different CPU than when I was a kid -- despite their formal teaching being very similar to that of their parents.

There are many things that we have done in certain ways over the centuries, and essentially the processes that we used did not start to change much till around 50 years ago when technology acceleration really started kicking in dramatically. We now use tools intuitively that had huge gee-whiz factors a few decades ago. And the tools have in many ways changed our processes.

Once when we calculated numbers we used an abacus, then a slide rule, then a pocket calculator. Same goal, same end result, different tool, different process. I remember the debate in the 70's about whether calculators should be allowed in university exams, now it's wi-fi PDAs. Should we prevent people from learning to use a more efficient process to get to the same result just because it's not the way we learned how to do it?

The way we prepare a meal today is in many ways similar to how we did it in Roman times. Except that we acquire the ingredients differently, we keep them under refrigeration, we wash them in running water, we pre-heat an oven instead of lighting a fire. Or we take a prepared meal out of a freezer and nuke it in a microwave. At the cellular level, of course, not a lot has changed -- raw food gets cooked and we still chew it before swallowing. But the processes we use to get there have improved and become more efficient and more effective.

The basic ways in which teaching and learning have taken place over the centuries should be just as subject to accelerating technological improvement as the processes in any other field. If anyone should be actively seeking better ways to accomplish their task, it should be those engaged in teaching -- after all, the generic goal of teachers is to prepare people for the future, not to shackle them to the past.

Monday, October 27, 2003

E-learning is not technology

There has always been shovelware in training, be it in the classroom, on CD-ROM, on videotape, in books, or on the Web. My experience of the pre-"e" days was not in trying to sell shovelware, so I can't speak for the reaction that those vendors were getting. But my perception at the time was that unless vendors were piling it high and selling it cheap, the training market was very reluctant to explore it.

Despite this, e-learning in one form or another is now an accepted mainstream part of most corporate training and academic education initiatives.

Several years ago at a conference in Paris I delivered a paper with the title "Think beyond technology -- e-learning success is about business processes" in which I made just the point that process is more important than either content or technology. At the time I was frustrated that trainers were just viewing e-learning as technology, and were allowing software functionality to define learning processes instead of the other way around. And beyond learning processes, they were expecting e-learning to exist independently of their other knowledge flows instead of being integrated with the corporate nervous system.

E-learning is not a technology, it's a learning process that invokes technologies. The Web is a technology. E-mail is a technology. Active Server Pages is a technology. Streaming media is a technology. E-learning, like book- learning, is a process. Thinking of e-learning as a technology is what leads to the kind of crass online experiences that most people dislike so much.

Sunday, October 26, 2003

Resistance to e-learning (still)

People did not want to accept e-learning even as a concept in the early days, and two of the biggest barriers were 1)learners not wanting to take responsibility for managing their own development and 2) trainers not wanting to give up their hierarchical control position. I'm talking about 1997/98 before the hype blitz, when most learners and trainers that I spoke with did not even know what WBT was about, or at best had a primitive superstitious view of it. We all have a need to cling to hierarchies of control, and have anxieties about freedom in a work context.

But the world is changing. Those more entrenched in corporate hierarchies may be unaware of it, but those newly entering the workforce are different than new employees ten or even five years ago. They grew up with technology, and the freedom, even anarchy, that it engenders. Are we "experienced" trainers and consultants to simply ignore the fact that those who populate our world -- those whom we serve -- have different needs, abilities, expectations, and perceptions than those we taught last decade? Are we to ignore the fact that new technologies are enabling new processes for communication and learning? Are we to become like the citizens of the city in Kafka's story whose culture was changed by nomads who suddenly appeared among them, leaving them aliens in their own landscape? In An Old Manuscript, the citizens were accustomed to assaults on their way of life in the old-fashioned military-invasion way, not in the subversive infiltration way. They were left unable to understand the language and customs of the poulation that had appeared within the walls, and could only stand by and watch new norms and new behaviors take over.

Is my view a superficial look from someone who develops e-learning? Far from it. True, I develop e-learning where that is the most appropriate solution for a client. I am primarily a learning strategy consultant (more often recommending classroom-based solutions than online solutions, or some combination of both). And I am a classroom trainer with nearly three decades of experience. I still run classroom courses whenever possible, and I fully understand their value and the value that good trainers add to the learning process.

I am not a technology geek that has descended like a parasite on the training industry without earning my dues -- in fact my comments often upset mainstream e-learning vendors because I see the industry through a trainer's eyes. Learning strategy, objectives and constraints should determine learning solutions, and blindly pursuing e-learning (or classroom learning) is going to produce outcomes that are far from optimal. That's been my mantra for years, yet somehow I often get re-cast as the e-learning zealot. E-learning is not always appropriate, effective, or efficient. Equally, there are instances where classroom solutions may be less effective or less economical.

For example, we run a series of courses that help a company's employees get their heads around the wired world, covering subjects like what the Internet is and why it matters, e-business, e-mail etiquette, security and privacy, and so on. Those courses are most effectively taught by e-learning, and the online courses are, appropriately, structured to be experiential. They are efficient as e-learning because each 6-16 hour course can go for $50 or less online, but has to be priced many times higher to be viable in a classroom.

But I digress. I just don't get why some people in the training field still -- at the end of 2003 -- think of e-learning as a threat and interpret any even vaguely positive reference to the concept as a put-down of classroom trainers. If they really understood e-learning, and its place in the array of available training methodologies, they wouldn't feel so insecure and defensive. The citizens in Kafka's story tried denial, but they lost anyway. They could not defend themselves from the changes that were already within their system. If trainers want to have some control over the evolution of their field, and avoid being marginalized, they should embrace innovation instead of fearing it.

Friday, October 24, 2003

Freedom, democracy, and working environments

I find it curious how people who passionately espouse the virtues of democracy (whatever that word means) and freedom of speech, are unquestioningly happy to spending more than half their waking hours in a rather authoritarian hierarchy -- their employer's company.

Though it is more illusion than reality, at least citizens *believe* that they are free in their private lives, and they draw a lot of strength from that delusion. In their work lives, there are no such delusions, yet there is no groundswell of discontent, no reform movement to protest the lack of freedom at work. Maybe it's because back in the 1960s that sort of thinking was considered Marxist and unamerican.

Or maybe it's because most people are more comfortable conforming, following someone else's lead, or taking orders than having to take on the responsibility of thinking for themselves and battling to get consensus every step of the way. As individuals, we are after all interested in making the most efficient, effective use of our personal time. That's probably how hierachical societies evolved in the first place.

I find it odd that we live in a political community that values above all else democracy and freedom of speech, yet in our corporate communities, hierarchical command-and-control management is accepted as the best way to make a business work.

If hierarchical command and control is the most efficient and effective way to run a business, why is it not also the best way to run a country? (Before democracy came to many of the European colonies, the average citizen was economically better off than today - - and certainly more secure, so long as they avoided insubordination). And if democracy IS the best way to run a country, why do we happily live most of our lives within a hierarchical work environment? We are "free" to sell our labor elsewhere, but in most cases we are moving from one semi-totalitarian environment to another, in search of a better dental plan.

Or perhaps corporations ARE democratic -- the Board is elected by shareholders, after all. The owners get to vote on big picture issues like strategy and alliances. Not a lot different from democratic government where the people with the money get to put politicians in power to represent their strategic agendas. The difference is that in democracy the average member of the population believes that he/she has a voice and is somehow important to the process, whereas in corporations the average worker feels no right to speak out on the big issues.

Tuesday, October 14, 2003

Mission, vision, values

For me the distinction between a mission and a vision is important if your average employee is going to buy into it. A mission describes your reason for being. But it describes your reason for being TODAY as well as into the future. Your vision is much more future-oriented - it is a description of what your company looks like, how it operates, who it works with and so on at a point in time beyond the present. It is, if you like, the ideal towards which you are working while still staying true to your mission. I have always found it useful to write vision statements in the present tense, as if you are actually in the future, looking around you and describing what you see.

Getting as many people as possible in your company to understand and buy into the vision is important - not least because the common vision helps define and reinforce the common values. The difference between a vision and a hallucination is the number of people who share it.

Sunday, October 12, 2003

Mission, vision, values

In all of the visioneering work I did way back in a previous life, I found that the best people to define the mission and vision were that small group of leaders/champions who would be responsible for inspiring the company and leading it forward.

But I also endorse the idea that as many people as possible should have an opportunity to provide inputs to the decision, and should at least feel like they were involved. It seems a little manipulative in retrospect, but we used to FIRST define the m/v/v with the company/department leadership and THEN run visioneering workshops for all first-level employees, using the "desired outcome" (never revealed to them) as a guiding light for the facilitator.

Those employees were guided through a structured process in which they listed all of the factors that influence their ability to do their jobs, and how those factors were changing, and then described the environment they would be trying to succeed in two years down the line. They would describe how an ideal organization would be structured and organized to best succeed in that environment. Then they would list out the activities they currently engaged in every day, and place them on various grids that identified opportunities for improvement or efficiency. They would then create an optimized grid, compare it with their earlier picture of a successful organization of the future, and develop guidelines for changes beyond simple linear improvements.

What fell out of those sessions was an iterative input to the earlier defined vision and mission statements. It was fed back to the leadership team, who would adjust their definitions accordingly (sometimes not at all, sometimes dramatically). Those final m/v/v definitions were then presented back to the employees in the company or department. Buy-in was virtually guaranteed. The process was usually repeated annually, and became very smooth, collaborative, and efficient.

And an important product of the activity was a performance-improvement needs analysis that the employees themselves had created -- which made the creation and implementation of learning activities a great deal easier.

Thursday, October 02, 2003

Branding, differentiation of services, and value proposition

Unique Value Proposition is customer focused, differentiation of services is product focused.

In sales and marketing, to introduce your product or service to a potential customer most effectively, you have to create a perception of "differential advantage". That means you have to describe it in a way that 1) differentiates it from others, AND 2) builds positive perception of value. Part (1) is differentiation of services, part (2) is unique value proposition. Rolling (1) and (2) together effectively in a word or phrase is what branding is all about.

A UVP is essentially a description or encapsulation of the value to the customer of doing business with you rather than anyone else. The focus is on the VALUE of the benefits that you bring to that customer's situation, rather than on the benefits themselves. In its "elevator speech" form, it is the generic gains that your target market will achieve from being involved with you, gains that they can't get elsewhere.

Differentiation of services is more about the branding of that UVP. If the UVP is the unique "WHAT" that my customers gain from this, differentiation of services is the unique "HOW" my services deliver that "what". The focus is on the features and benefits of the PRODUCT/SERVICE itself that are different from the features/benefits offered by competing products. And it is the "personality" that you want your product/service to be remembered for. The label or tag or mental short-cut that you associate with your product (the brand, your name) that makes it stand out from others in the field.